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Marking the collapse of a once-thriving company, three Major League Baseball teams have sued Forte Interactive of West Palm Beach, saying the company had stiffed them for nearly $1 million that runners and bikers paid to participate in charity races.

The San Francisco Giants won a judgment for $621,836 against Forte Interactive in March. The team said Forte Interactive never turned over fees paid by thousands of runners who competed in the Giant Race series of events in San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose and Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2017.

And on Wednesday, Chicago Cubs Charities, a nonprofit affiliated with the 2016 World Series champions, sued Forte Interactive in Palm Beach County Circuit Court. The organization says Forte Interactive owes it $141,429 in registration fees paid by runners who participated in the Cubs' annual Run to Wrigley Field 5K race in April 2017.

Forte Interactive bounced a check for that amount in March 2017, Chicago Cubs Charities said in its suit.

The Milwaukee Brewers and the Brewers Community Foundation sued in February in Wisconsin. That suit says Forte owes $142,833 in fees from the Famous Racing Sausages 5K Run/Walk and the Hitting 4 The Cycle bike race.

Forte Interactive, an internet marketing firm that ran a website that collected registration fees on behalf of race organizers, isn't contesting the suits, owner Kirk St. Johns said Friday.

In a December letter to Forte Interactive, Major League Baseball said the company owed money to "at least five teams."

"Forte is no longer in good standing and has not been performing in a timely and professional manner," said the letter, which was on letterhead and was included in the Cubs' lawsuit.

In another dispute, the Dana Point, Calif., Chamber of Commerce also is seeking $239,000 in fees it said Forte collected for the Dana Point Turkey Trot, the Dana Point Times reported in March.

For nearly two decades, Forte Interactive was a growing operation, with three dozen employees and an enviable stable of high-profile clients. Now, the West Palm Beach-based company is all but insolvent. Forte Interactive has been evicted from its Datura Street office space.

Long headed by entrepreneur Clay Williams, the company was taken over in late October by St. Johns, a turnaround specialist who lives in West Palm Beach. Williams, who's named as a defendant in the Cubs' suit, declined to comment.

"The defendants took the dollars and used them for their own purposes and refused to forward the donated funds despite repeated requests," the Cubs' suit said.

St. Johns said in an interview Friday that as Forte Interactive's business grew, executives spent far more in salaries, rent and technology upgrades than they could cover with revenues.

"These guys had a nice little business that they started, that spiraled out of control, and like a kid behind the wheel of a sports car, they couldn't stop until they hit the tree," St. Johns said.

St. Johns said he took over Forte Interactive's operations and moved out of the company's space at 313 Datura St. Williams still operates Achieve Agency, a firm with offices in West Palm Beach and Indianapolis.

The baseball teams have hired other companies to manage the collection of race fees, St. Johns said. But Forte Interactive still runs, the site that collects registration fees for race organizers in exchange for a fee of about 5 percent. St. Johns said he has changed the site's procedures so that RacePartner no longer holds the money on behalf of race organizers.

The Giants said proceeds from the team's races were supposed to go to the Boys and Girls Club of Scottsdale and other charities. A tax return for Chicago Cubs Charities said it gives money to such nonprofits as the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation of California and the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation of Coconut Creek.

St. Johns said that he has found no evidence of fraud but plenty of signs of undisciplined spending.

"It was just way too much fat," St. Johns said. Twitter: @bio561

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April 10, 2018


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